Henry Ford was battling another set of demons. In
May 1919, his million-dollar libel suit against the Chicago Tribune
finally came to trial in the town of Mount Clemens, Michigan, the
Macomb County seat twenty miles northeast of Dearborn known for its
supposedly therapeutic, noxious sulphur springs. Three years earlier
the newspaper had labeled the automobile manufacturer an "ignorant
anarchist" for saying that he was unequivocally opposed to "cowardly
and unjust" United States military involvement in border disputes with
Mexico: "Better to put the Mexican peon to work," Ford said, "then
there would be no more talk of a revolution. Villa would become a
foreman, if he had brains. Carranza might be trained to be a good
Weeks of detailed questioning by the Tribune's adept attorney, Elliott G. Stevenson, sought to "expose Ford's mind bare" and establish him as pitiably naïve, ill-educated, and unpatriotic. It became painfully clear that the Flivver King was ignorant of most basic textbook facts: the fundamental principles of government, the dates of the Revolutionary War ("1812?" he asked tentatively), and the identity of Benedict Arnold (Ford thought Arnold was "a writer," confusing the traitor with Arnold Bennett, apologists insisted, because at the moment the question was posed, Ford was preoccupied on the witness stand, scraping mud off the sole of his cordovan shoe with a penknife.)
But what did these so-called facts matter in the end, an exasperated Ford blurted out late one afternoon, since "History is more or less the bunk." Twenty years on, he was still trying to clarify what he meant by that infamous statement. He was really talking about-had always been referring to-the authors of history books that "weren't true. They wrote what they wanted us to believe, glorifying some conqueror or leader or something like that."
When the jury finally heard enough verbiage from both sides and withdrew to deliberate in "the weary summer of 1919," Ford, feeling dispirited and vindictive, sought to distance himself. He was overdue for another restorative excursion with sympathetic friends. Accompanied by Edward G. Kingsford, manager of the Ford Motor Company for Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Ford sailed on Lake Erie from Detroit to Buffalo aboard the night boat of August 3. There he was met by Harvey Firestones Senior and Junior, coming in from Cleveland via Akron. A six-car entourage of Cadillacs, Lincolns, and Pierce-Arrows was assembled for the ramble eastward to Syracuse, New York. After a night's rest, the group set forth for Albany, where Thomas Edison and John Burroughs completed the happy band. They pitched a compound of tents at Green Island, north of Troy, where Ford had just purchased a large plot of land upon which he was planning to build a Fordson Tractor factory.
an afternoon of woodchopping and riflery, and dinner served around a
big table with a bountiful Lazy Susan in the middle, the campfire talk
on the night of August 5 was dutifully recorded by John Burroughs in
his private pocket notebook. Ford was in an especially dour mood. He
strayed off the safe, jingoistic path, and attacked the Jews, Burroughs
jotted down, "saying the Jews caused the War, the Jews caused the
outbreak of thieving and robbery all across the country, the Jews
caused the inefficiency of the Navy." Then Ford lashed out at railroad
magnate Jay Gould as "a Shylock" and the prime example of the kind of
avarice he abhorred. Burroughs was forced to join the argument; Gould
had been his childhood wrestling playmate and was a tried-and-true
Such satisfaction was momentary, for Jew hatred was now an entrenched, persistent stain on Ford's psyche. Stunned and embarrassed by the depth of his friend's aggressive language, Burroughs did not transcribe this aspect of the fireside debate into the published version of his camping story, "A Strenuous Holiday," an otherwise affectionate reminiscence that appeared in his 1921 book, Under the Maples. Nor did Burroughs ever mention Ford's bias in any other related essay about their customary outings together, save to say that "not much of the talk that night around the camp fire can be repeated."
Burroughs sensed correctly that Thomas Edison was empathetic with Ford's prejudices, although in a less strident, more stereotypical manner. The Jewish businessmen in Germany, Edison chimed in, according to Burroughs's notes from that same August night, were "keen and alert ... efficient," in contrast to the lowbrow German industrial and military leadership, wrongfully taking possessive credit for the past prosperity of their nation. Five years earlier, indignant at a similar manifestation of Edison's typecasting published in an interview in the Detroit Free Press, the banker Jacob H. Schiff, chairman of Kuhn, Loeb & Company, dashed off an angry letter asking Edison to deny his "flighty ... assertion[s]." Edison drafted a conciliatory response insisting he was only trying to give credit where credit was due. If Schiff wanted to discover the secret of the "enormous industry of modern Germany," he had merely to "dig up [sic] a Jew who furnished the ability and that made them a success."
Edison elaborated upon his theory about where Jews did and did not belong in society in a subsequent letter to Isaac Markens, author of The Hebrews in America (1888) and Abraham Lincoln and the Jews (1909). "The Jews are certainly a remarkable people," Edison conceded, "as strange to me in their isolation from all the rest of mankind as those mysterious people called Gypsies. While there are some 'terrible examples' in mercantile pursuits, the moment they get into art, music and science, and literature, the Jew is fine." To Edison, it was a troubling "racial" characteristic, a "natural talent" for becoming rich, that had caused the meddling Jew to be "disliked." Hopefully, through continued exposure to modern American democracy, the Jew "in time will cease to be so clannish." Edison excised the next sentence of his letter with black pencil before having it typed up for sending to Markens: "I wish they would all stop making money."
The recent ideological conflicts over the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in late June were on everyone's mind and also tainted the Ford-Edison dialogues that summer. Infuriated with the "Carthaginian" solution to the war concocted by the Council of Four and excessive reparations reducing Germany to servitude for a generation-and especially disillusioned with the behavior of President Wilson-the young economist John Maynard Keynes had summarily quit as an adviser to the British Peace Conference delegation. Keynes notified Lloyd George that he was "slipping away from this scene of nightmare ... in the dead season of our fortunes. The battle is lost." Keynes was horrified by the way in which the governments of Europe, in their "racial or political hatred" euphemistically condemned the "international financiers ... profiteers and traders" for the post-War chaos of their economies. The insinuating and bitter shadow of Versailles thus fell most ominously over the Jews, triggering a "fourth wave" of American anti-alienism to break in 1919.
In considering the nuances in their different attitudes toward Jews at this volatile juncture in the Ford-Edison relationship, the observations of Leon Poliakov, investigator of Nazi war crimes for the Nuremberg trials and author of one of the definitive histories of antisemitism, prove useful. He makes the important distinction between those who "merely hold negative stereotyped value-judgements about the Jews to be true; and those who openly express a desire to have Jews restricted in any way." In both cases, Poliakov says -and there is no question of Ford's susceptibility here-the degree of intolerance expressed is "often a function of the hostile individual's anxiety."
Aside from a run of public-relations blunders and hypersensitivity to postwar consequences in Europe, Henry Ford suffered from other anxious matters. The nation had been crippled by a series of big labor strikes since the new year-harbor workers, sedan- and open-car body manufacturers, and railroad shopmen, with further disturbances brewing from coal miners and steel workers-not to mention an impending raise in the discount rate by the Federal Reserve Board . Ford was looking at unprecedented consumer demand for his cars, but he was frustrated by disruptions in the interlocking chain of industries that inhibited his ability to meet consumer demand.
When Ford returned from the summer travels and refocused attention with hopes of solace upon his beloved Dearborn Independent, he discovered stagnant circulation and a hemorrhaging budget as the first year of the paper's life moved toward conclusion. Something had to be done to improve matters. "Find an evil to attack, go after it, and stay after it," advised Joseph Jefferson O'Neill, a veteran New York World reporter lured away from his job to try to help Ford manage his faltering public persona during the Chicago Tribune trial. "PUSSY FOOTING and being afraid to hurt people will keep us just where we are if not send us further down the ladder.... If we get and print the right sort of stuff, ONE SINGLE SERIES may make us known to millions.... LET'S HAVE SOME SENSATIONALISM."